Heroines, Honeys and Hos: Conflicting Images of Women in the Blaxploitation Era
Pam Grier in Coffy (1973).
Pam Grier built her career starring in blaxploitation films. Over the course of a five-year spread (1972-1977), Grier starred in 18 films. Among her most popular are Coffy (1973), Scream Blacula Scream, The Arena (1974), Foxy Brown (1974), Sheba, Baby (1975), Bucktown (1975) and Friday Foster (1975). Not only does she exemplify the era, Pam Grier is also the standard by which all other black female leads in the 1970s were based. She has also played the most complicated and contradictory roles of any black actress of this time.
In Coffy, Grier plays a nurse-turned-vigilante who poses as a drug-addicted prostitute (The Ho’) to lure the drug dealer whose product caused the death of her younger sister. As she seeks to avenge her sister’s death, Coffy’s friend Carter, a cop on the beat, is killed by the same dealers who sold heroin to her sister, thus making Coffy even more determined to see the bloodshed come to a end. What is so disturbing about the way in which Coffy is written is how it deliberately emphasizes a rift between women, furthering the narrative that women are catty. It also goes on to show a lack of sisterhood and collaboration among black women. We see Coffy, who is looking for the dealer of the heroin that killed her sister, showing very little empathy for the drug addict that comes to the clinic where she is a nurse. It is literally her job to care for this woman; instead, she demonstrates the worst bedside manner you can imagine. This was also at a time where female nurses on TV or in film were very domesticated and offered a softer presence than what is seen in Coffy.
Next, Coffy, who is in her cover as a prostitute, is being scouted by a pimp to become his “bottom bitch,” thus creating tension between her and the other women who worked for him. It soon boils over and a full out brawl takes over. Coffy wins the fight, but it is what occurs later in the film that is perplexing.
A mob boss picks Coffy out for the night and somehow her boyfriend, a Congressional candidate, is there and she is sent to be killed. A huge mess is made of her undercover operation when after being discovered and taken away, Coffy is drugged and gang-raped. What is disturbing about this scene is how she reacts: Coffy doesn’t behave like a woman who has just been violated. She is still on her quest for revenge. The rape plays out like a necessary sacrifice when there could have been opportunity here to reflect on the very real experience of rape among sex workers.
Grier’s other films pretty much follow the same formula. In most, she is the scantily clad heroine. In a few, her breasts are exposed ala Apollonia in Purple Rain (a role that probably would have gone to Grier had it been made ten years earlier). But in every film, Grier’s female lead is the fantasy of men, specifically white men. This is even true to the fact of how these movies were made. Larry Gordon, head of production at American International Pictures, lost the rights to Cleopatra and rushed the production of Coffy through to beat the release of Dobson’s film. It did and was more successful. This explains why the plots for both films are strikingly similar. Gordon, a white man, pit two black actresses in competing roles because he felt slighted after losing out on producing Cleopatra Jones on his own accord.
These four women and the three types of roles afforded to black women in the 1970s resurfaced in the 1990s when those of us who were born at that time were in our late teens and early 20s. There was new appreciation for the genre among the generation writer Marc Neal calls “Soul Babies.” Not only did our TV shows and movies likeMartin, Living Single, New YorkUndercover and New Jack City pay homage to this era, the music also took this turn as well and more hip hop artists and singers began to sample music from the films of this era. Young black women wanted to be a badass like Foxy Brown, drive a sleek car like Cleopatra Jones, be a beautiful brainiac like Michelle Williams and adored like her sister, Tina Williams, by a man who would not only search for you for centuries, but would take his life to spare your own.
By 1979, the blaxploitation era had come to a close. When asked then by Essence magazine about her roles and whether or not she felt exploited by the industry, Grier responded:
Why would people think I would ever demean the Black woman? I was tried and convicted without being asked to testify in my defense. Sure, a lot of those films were junk. But they were what was being offered. They provided work for me and jobs for hundreds of Blacks. We all needed to work. We all needed to eat.